R.L. Bynum, Correspondent
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The sideline scene, on an otherwise good day for North Carolina, typified the Tar Heels’ season-long injury frustrations.
Antonio Williams, wearing a walking boot on his right foot after getting hurt last week, leaned over the back of a bench during the second quarter.
He was watching as fellow running back Michael Carter — who had already run for 45 yards — was getting medical attention for an apparent injury to his right forearm.
Soon, Carter was walking out of a tunnel in the west end of Kenan Stadium with orthopedic doctor Alex Creighton and headed to UNC Hospitals, likely for X-rays.
Carter returned to the sidelines but not to the game.
The Tar Heels did what was expected in beating Western Carolina 49–26 Saturday.
Although it wasn’t as easy as expected, UNC (2–8) snapped a six-game losing streak and handed the Catamounts (3–8) their eighth consecutive defeat.
But UNC’s chances of winning what amounts to UNC’s bowl game — the season-ending home game against N.C. State next Saturday — are uncertain, given that it doesn’t know if Cade Fortin or Carter will play.
The sometimes-porous Wolfpack secondary could be easy prey for a healthy Fortin.
Yet another injury gave another young player a chance.
This time it was true freshman running back Javonte Williams, who ran for 93 yards and three touchdowns.
“Tonight was his first night to really get extended time in the backfield,” Coach Larry Fedora said.
“It shows you that he’s pretty mature and he’s prepared himself well. He’s been preparing himself since game one to be out there and be the guy. It just hasn’t happened until tonight.”
Another promising true freshman, quarterback Fortin, dressed out.
He wore a brace on his right knee but didn’t wear a helmet, which means one of two possibilities.
He’s either not healthy enough to play or he’s healthy enough to play and UNC doesn’t want to lose his redshirt.
By not playing against WCU, he can play against N.C. State and still maintain his redshirt.
Given how the Catamounts rolled up the offense against Carolina’s defense though, a good offensive game against State might not matter.
UNC got by OK against WCU riding Nathan Elliott at quarterback until the game was put away.
That may not work against the Wolfpack, particularly with Elliott’s penchant for throwing behind receivers, which resulted in two first-half interceptions.
“I’m excited about this win but, to be honest with you, I’m not very excited about my performance,” Elliott said.
“I thought I could have had some better ball placement on a couple of throws. Those two interceptions are the only thing I’m thinking about after that game. I’ve got to clean that up.”
Elliott had plenty of success against a Catamounts defense that has now given up 38 or more points eight times, seven against FCS teams.
With a couple of long passes mixed in, he connected on 18 of 24 passes for 308 yards and two touchdowns before coming out in the third quarter.
He became the 15th Tar Heel to throw for 3,000 yards.
When Manny Miles came in to complete a Hail Mary 38-yard scoring pass at the end of the first half, he became the ninth Tar Heel to throw a pass and the sixth to complete one.
It’s a testament to the backfield injury struggles that include QB Chaz Surratt being lost for the season in his only game and QB Jace Ruder getting hurt in his only game.
Javonte Williams was already expecting to play to keep starters fresh for the State game.
But when Carter went down, he got even more chances.
“Coach has been throwing me in in critical situations, I just had to mature faster than others and I think I handled that pretty well,” Williams said.
“I just continue to learn the game.”
The 5-foot-11, 205-pound Williams got most of his playing time starting on all four special teams before his 17-yard, one-touchdown game against Duke.
He had only 48 yards on 10 carries on the season before Saturday.
With Coastal Carolina giving him his only scholarship offer, Williams thought about just going to UNC as a regular student and giving up football.
That all changed last season when he led Wallace Rose Hill to its fourth straight state title.
After winning the state 2-A championship game at Kenan Stadium, UNC offered him a scholarship.
He had his official visit the next day and he accepted one week later.
“I was telling my mom, I was going to give football up because I didn’t really have offers I thought I deserved,” Williams said.
“She just told me to keep pushing and keep praying and my last game, they just offered me, and that’s why I think it’s a blessing.”
It could be a blessing for the Tar Heels against N.C. State, particularly if Carter is unable to play next week.
“He’s just so smart,” Elliott said.
“He makes very good cuts, sets his blocks up well. In our pass protections, he’s picked them up faster than anybody I’ve seen pick it up at the running back position.”
A biology major, he was his high school’s nominee for the prestigious Morehead-Cain Scholarship.
But he’s on an athletic scholarship at Carolina.
Since he grew up a Carolina fan, first more for basketball and then later for football, Chapel Hill was his preferred destination all along.
There may not have been many colleges that were interested in Williams, but he was always interested in Carolina.
“Here’s a kid that loves everything about Carolina and that’s why he wanted to come to Carolina,” Fedora said.
Though happy to be on scholarship, it has been a frustrating transition for him.
“I haven’t played as much as I wanted to, but I know my chance is coming,” Williams said.
“Being a high school standout and coming here and just starting all over again humbled me a lot.”
Williams became the first UNC running back to run for three touchdowns since Elijah Hood did it against Georgia Tech in 2016.
“I’m proud of myself because I knew I could do it the whole time,” Williams said.
“I just had to show other people. That was the hardest part. Being from a small town, they don’t usually believe in you as much as some others, but I think I played pretty well today and I am just going to keep getting better.”
Many UNC fans are down on the football team and that probably hasn’t changed much after a victory over an FCS team.
Williams, however, is much more optimistic.
“We should be going to a bowl game right now,” said Williams, who also caught two passes for 38 yards.
“I think we should have won all our games but some things like overlooking opponents and not finishing games, things like that that we have to overcome. Next year, I think we’re going to be a solid team and we’re going to turn this thing around. I’d like for everybody to believe in us because we still believe, and we’re still playing hard.”
If the Tar Heels are going to have a chance next Saturday against the Wolfpack, they’ll probably need to see more good running from Williams … and a healthy Fortin.
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